The trek along the Inca Trail is an unforgettable experience that captures the imagination and leaves an indelible imprint on the heart. Adventurous explorers from all over the world are magnetically attracted to the magnificent Peruvian backcountry and its soaring mountain peaks, drawn to the spectacular beauty of this sacred locale and the mystery of the ruins hidden amongst the clouds.
Locally known as Camino Inka, the Inca Trail actually consists of three different overlapping trails that provide access through the high mountain passes of the Andes to the famous “Lost City of the Incas,” Machu Picchu. These extraordinary ruins of an ancient Incan civilization have become Peru's most visited tourist attraction, and the trail leading to Machu Picchu has been designated as one of the top five treks in the world. The “Classic” trail is the four day route taken by the majority of visitors, who are forever awed by some of the most glorious scenery and views on the planet.
The First Step: Preparing for Your Adventure on the Inca Trail
Unlike many other popular hiking trails throughout the world, you can't just show up in Cusco and start walking. Whether or not you are an experienced hiker and outdoorsman, the Peruvian government has established certain restrictions concerning the number of people that are allowed onto the trail each day. Because of the enormous popularity of the trail and its destination at a location now named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” tourists themselves were becoming the most significant danger to the stability of the trail and the ruins. Today there are strict rules governing the number of people allowed on the Inca Trail each season - just 500 people per day (including guides and porters) - and advance reservations are mandatory. Additionally, visitors may only travel the Inca Trail under the guidance of a licensed tour operator that not only serves to assist hikers along the route but also works to preserve the trail and the ruins.
It is recommended that those who intend to partake in the Inca Trail adventure make their reservations four months in advance, although it is possible to sometimes grab a spot later if there are last minute cancellations.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Hike the Inca Trail?
November through April is the monsoon season in the Andes Mountain range, and the epic views along the trail are covered with low-lying clouds. The high season when most tourists will be trekking the Camino Inca falls in the warmer months between July and September, which is a beautiful time of year for the scenery but can also be crowded with too many other visitors. The very best times to visit Machu Picchu are in either May or October, when the weather is perfect, the skies are clear, the views are spectacular, and there are fewer tourists to compete with for the best viewing spots.
Where Can You Book Your Inca Trail Adventure?
As previously mentioned, only specially licensed tour operators can organize the Inca Trail trips, so those who want to explore the ruins and see the Sun Gate must schedule their trip through one of these guide companies. There are about 180 licensed operators at present, although there only a few that offer fixed-date departures and have reliable reputations. You can find a list of licensed Inca Trail tour guides at www. Incatrailperu.com.
Once you select your guide, it is a common requirement that you provide an initial deposit of 50% of the total tour price. A portion of this fee is utilized for purchasing your trek permit from the Peruvian government and reservations for a return ticket on the Expedition Class tourist train. There are different levels of services offered in trail packages, so select yours based on your requirements. A basic standard service for a four-day, Classic Trail trip normally costs between $520 and $600 (US Dollars) per person, and includes a maximum group size of sixteen people.
What Is Included in the Inca Trail Tour Package?
In addition to providing transportation to the trailhead, the package price includes the entrance fees to the Inca Trail and to Machu Picchu. Porters come along to help carry supplies and equipment, usually with pack animals such as horses, donkeys or llamas. The tour company provides tents for you to sleep in at night, set up for you by the porters, as well as all of your meals prepared. They also bring along an emergency oxygen bottle for anyone who may suffer from altitude sickness.
What Items Should You Bring on Your Inca Trail Adventure?
The most important thing is to have a good, sturdy, comfortable pair of hiking boots. Pack your own backpack with seasonal clothing, and be sure to bring along rain gear as well as warm clothes for cool nights in the mountains. Bring your camera because you are going to have some of the most amazing “photo ops” of your entire life. The guides will bring a first aid kit, but make sure you bring any personal medications. It's also a good idea to bring along small bills and change in case you want to let one of the Peruvian kids who hustle along the trail carry your backpack for a while, and you might want to buy a bottle of beer at the hostel at Winay Wayna.
What Can You Expect the First Day on the Trail?
After your guide drives you through the incredible Sacred Valley along the shores of the Urubamba River, you will reach the trail head at kilometer 82 in Piscacucho, the first official Inca Trail checkpoint. Your hike begins by crossing a suspension footbridge and beginning the gentle climb that follows the course of the river for about three hours. You'll see jaw-dropping views of the snowy peak of Waka Willka, and then you'll approach the ancient Incan fortress ruins of Willka Raccay. Impressive farming terraces, spectacular waterfalls, gorgeous orchids and other fauna will greet your view along the trail toward the massive settlement at Llactapata, and you will camp for the night near the village of Huayllabamba, 3000 meters above sea level.
After your first day's trek of about 12 km, you will enjoy a lovely dinner prepared at your campsite, and an evening camping in the clouds. Tomorrow will be a new day of adventure and excitement on the ancient Inca Trail.
To be continued...
More Inca Trail photos are here, on our Flickr page. Welcome.